Sir Alec Douglas–Home, His Titles and Peerages

Alexander Frederick Douglas–Home was the eldest son of Charles Cospatrick Archibald Douglas–Home, the 13th Earl of Home. He was born in Mayfair, London, in 1903. At this time his grandfather – Charles Alexander Douglas–Home, the 12th Earl of Home – was still alive and his father was known by the courtesy title of Lord Dunglass.

The 12th Earl died in 1918, and was succeeded by his son Charles Cospatrick Archibald Douglas–Home. At this point in time the courtesy title, Lord Dunglass, passed to 14–year–old Alexander Frederick.

A courtesy title was no bar to a seat in the House of Commons, and Dunglass stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1929. He was eventually elected in 1931, as Ramsay Macdonald was forced to form a National Coalition government. In 1936 he was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Neville Chamberlain, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time and became Prime Minister in 1937.

In 1940 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine. This necessitated an innovative and hazardous operation, followed by a lengthy period of recuperation. He returned to the House of Commons in July 1943, but in 1945 he lost his seat as the Labour Party won by a landslide in the General Election. Expecting to inherit his father's title, which would exclude him from the commons (there being no provision at the time for peers to renounce their titles) he took up an appointment as a director to the Bank of Scotland.

In 1950, Clement Atlee called a general election. With the Cold War at its height, although Labour won the election with a majority of five seats, Dunglass won the Lanark constituency back from the left–wing Labour incumbent, Tom Steele, by a majority of just 685.

The 13th Earl of Home died in July of the following year (1951), and the new 14th Earl took his seat in the House of Lords. His seat in the Commons was still vacant in October 1951 when Atlee called another general election; the Unionists held Lanark, and the Conservatives under Winston Churchill won a small but workable majority of 17 seats.

Home took an appointment in the Scottish Office, and in 1955, when Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, he was made Commonwealth Secretary. Then in 1960, Harold Macmillan appointed him as Foreign Secretary. This was a controversial step, as by this time there was an expectation (particularly among the Labour opposition) that such senior posts would be held by members of the Commons. Macmillan attempted to appease his critics by appointing Edward Heath as Lord Home's deputy, with a seat in the Cabinet.

Macmillan was to resign in 1963, amid the fallout from the Profumo affair and after being diagnosed with a prostate condition. There was no shortage of candidates to succeed him: Rab Butler, Reginald Maudling and Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) all had strong claims, with Home seen as "a fourth hypothetical candidate" on whom the party could compromise if necessary.

It was taken as read that either Hailsham or Home, if chosen, would have to renounce their seats in the Lords – the Peerages Act of that year having made this possible. As early as 1923 King George V, faced with a choice between Stanley Baldwin and Lord Curzon, had decided that "the requirements of the present times" obliged him to appoint a Prime Minister from the Commons.

On 18 October 1963 The Times ran the headline, "The Queen May Send for Mr. Butler Today". But Macmillan himself had already surprised many of his party, and many in the media, by making it known that he favoured Home; and Home it was who was called to Buckingham Palace on the 19th to "kiss hands" and become Prime Minister.

Four days later, on 23 October 1963, Home disclaimed his earldom and associated lesser peerages. Having been made a knight of the Order of the Thistle in 1962, he was known subsequently as Sir Alec Douglas–Home. The safe Unionist seat of Kinross and West Perthshire was vacant following the sudden death of Gilmour Leburn, and the candidate initially adopted, George Younger, agreed to stand aside. Douglas–Home was thus adopted as his party's candidate. Parliament was due to meet on 24 October after the summer recess, but its return was postponed until 12 November pending the by–election. For twenty days the new Prime Minister was a member of neither house of Parliament – a situation without modern precedent. He won the 7 November by–election with a majority of 9,328; the Liberal candidate was in second place, and Labour third.

It is by no means clear whether or not the 14th Earl of Home actually sat in the House of Lords in the four days between his appointment as Prime Minister and the renunciation of his peerage.

The principal legacy of Home's government was the abolition of resale price maintenance, which enabled the cut price stickers that we see on goods in the shops today. Five weeks into his premiership the US President, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated; Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was not impressed by the sale of British Leyland buses to Cuba.

Sir Alec Douglas–Home was an unexpected Prime Minister, and he served for only 363 days – the second shortest premiership in the 20th century. At the general election held on 15 October 1964, the Labour party under Harold Wilson was returned with a four–seat majority.

Despite this defeat, Home went on to serve as Foreign Secretary throughout Edward Heath's premiership from 1970 to 1974. At the time of writing he is the last former Prime Minister to have served under a successor. He was deemed a success in his conduct of relations with the Soviet Union, but he failed to find a solution to the situation in Rhodesia.

Following Heath's defeat in the general election of February 1974, Home stepped down at the second election of that year, called in October by Wilson's minority government. Before the end of 1974 he had accepted a life peerage, taking the title Lord Home of the Hirsel – a reference to the stately home near Coldstream in the Scottish borders that had been the home of the Earls of Home since 1611.

During his remaining years, Home's interests gradually turned away from politics and towards the pleasures of life at The Hirsel – not least the fishing and the shooting. He gave his last speech in the House of Lords in 1989, speaking against Douglas Hurd's proposals for prosecuting war criminals living in Britain. He died at The Hirsel in October 1995, aged 92. He and Harold Wilson, who was 13 years his junior but predeceased him by four months, were the only UK prime ministers to live their entire lives in the 20th century.

© Haydn Thompson 2020